Floating in Mud to Reach the Skies: Victor Sassoon and the Real Estate Boom in Shanghai, 1920s–1930s

The historical waterfront of Shanghai known as the Bund, one of the most impressive architectural landscapes in Asia, was described in the 1930s in Fortune magazine as having “the tallest buildings outside the American continent; the biggest hoard of silver in the world” and being “the cradle of new China”.1 At a time when the US economy was in ruins and much of China was besieged by civil war, Shanghai's foreign concessions provided a safe haven for Chinese and foreign investors. With the influx of hot money, Shanghai experienced an unprecedented building boom. Notable among these real estate developers was Sir Ellice Victor Elias Sassoon (1881–1961, hereafter Victor Sassoon) who transferred much of his wealth from India to Shanghai and then transformed the Shanghai skyline. Inspired by American skyscrapers, Sassoon decided to build the first skyscraper in Shanghai, which would also be the first in the Eastern hemisphere, even though Shanghai's muddy ground had never supported a building of that height before. This article documents how the evolution of treaty port architecture in China owed much to Victor Sassoon. Its innovations – from the advent of skyscrapers, with their Art Deco style and mixed-use function, to the engineering methods and financial arrangements that built them – bore Sassoon's stamp. As will be seen, Sassoon's experiment paid off handsomely.